By Mike Mooneyham
May 6, 2001
Shelton Benjamin may be one of the best wrestlers you’ve never seen.
And he could have been one of the best football players and track stars had pro wrestling not been such an alluring option.
Today the 25-year-old Benjamin finds himself at the brink of a promising career in the World Wrestling Federation where many officials see him as the next Kurt Angle. Benjamin, a 6-2, 240-pound former collegiate standout at the University of Minnesota who for the past year and a half has trained at the WWF’s developmental camp in Louisville, Ky., has drawn rave reviews for his attitude and ability.
[ad#MikeMooneyham-336×280]”Shelton is one of the most athletic people I have ever seen,” WWF performer Mark Henry told the Louisville Courier-Journal last year. “He’s fast; he’s got damn near perfect balance; he’s flexible. He’s just muscle. And he can eat anything. Pringles. Twix. Snickers. Ho-Hos. Ding Dongs. And the sucker don’t gain weight.”
Benjamin is one step away from the big time, currently working for Ohio Valley Wrestling, a WWF “minor league” affiliate where he shares that promotion’s tag- team title with former NCAA heavyweight champion and fellow Golden Gopher Brock Lesnar as a duo billed as “The Minnesota Stretching Crew.”
“Shelton is fantastic. He’s a natural,” rants Jim Cornette, who operates the WWF’s developmental talent program. It’s high praise coming from Cornette, who is regarded as one of the best judges of talent in the business. “Shelton’s probably the best learner and the most natural student we’ve had since we’ve been here. He’s in tremendous shape and his work is just fabulous.”
Benjamin’s coach at Minnesota, J Robinson, had been roommates with Jerry Brisco at Oklahoma State where they both were amateur wrestling standouts. Brisco, a former pro star who now works as a front-office official with the WWF, was scouting top talent and had been looking at Lesnar, who was the NCAA heavyweight wrestling runner-up in 1999 and champion in 2000. At the time Benjamin was serving as an assistant coach for the Gophers wrestling team.
“I was looking at Brock, who we’ve since signed, but J told me that he had a kid who was a tremendous athlete and a two- time All-American,” Brisco says. “He said he had a great personality and that we really ought to take a look at him. He would be great for business.”
Brisco went to Minneapolis to check out Lesnar, but he also met with Benjamin.
“Five minutes with Shelton convinced me that everything J told me about him was true,” Brisco says. “Tremendous personality, charisma, tremendous athlete and a really good person. We signed him up and sent down him to Jim Cornette and Ohio Valley Wrestling. Within two weeks Cornette was calling and saying that this kid was one of the most natural athletes he had ever seen in our business. Within a year he has turned into a tremendous, tremendous potential for the WWF.”
An impressive physical specimen to say the least – tall, strong and cut from granite – with ability to match and an eagerness to learn, the two-time All- American possesses all the qualities a promoter like Vince McMahon relishes.
But there was a time when Shelton Benjamin’s future looked anything but promising.
Ten years ago Benjamin was a 15-year- old kid whose life revolved more around guns and mischief than books and academics. Growing up in a rough section of Orangeburg had exposed him to some of life’s harsh realities, and Benjamin saw himself being tugged in a direction that today he thanks God he turned away from. But, he admits, it took a very special individual to show him there was a better way.
Ron Donlick of Mount Pleasant was an assistant wrestling coach at Wando High School when he first noticed Benjamin.
“It’s almost one of those destiny things,” recalls Donlick. “We had taken a wrestler to the state championships that year, and on the next mat I saw this kid from another school wrestling. He absolutely didn’t know anything, but he was such a physical specimen that I just had to watch him. Shelton weighed about 195, and he grabbed this big kid who was about 6-5 and 275 pounds in a bearhug and pulled him on top of himself. He fell over backward.”
Donlick remembers laughing and wondering what Benjamin was doing. Seconds later, though, he found out.
“Shelton reached one arm underneath the guy and went into a high bridge, and with one arm flipped the guy straight over the top and pinned him. He absolutely defied the law of physics.”
Donlick thought that the youngster could be fantastic if he could coach him for a few years. He had almost put the notion out of his mind until later that year when the athletic director from Orangeburg- Wilkinson High School called looking for a wrestling coach. Donlick had sterling credentials, but it was a 140-mile round trip from his Mount Pleasant home to the Orangeburg school. But what the heck, he figured, it wouldn’t hurt to at least go up for the interview. He’d simply find a reason cf,tsi not cf,cr to take the job.
“I went up and everyone was so nice
I never found the reason,” laughs Donlick, who accepted the wrestling gig as well as a teaching position and an assistant’s job on the football team. It was during wrestling practice that he ran into the same kid he remembered from the tournament.
“Shelton told me he was going to wrestle, and the rest was kind of history,” says Donlick.
Under Donlick’s close tutelage, Benjamin reached near-legendary status at O-W. He lost only one wrestling match the next two years, was a two-time state champion and was an All-American in two different ratings groups, finishing third in the nation.
“He really should have been first,” adds Donlick. “He was never a great morning wrestler, and he had one early-morning match. Then he came back and whipped the guy up, down and sideways later in the tournament. That cost him the national championship in high school.”
The relationship, however, got off to a rather shaky start. Before wrestling practice even started, Donlick’s assistant coach approached him with some troubling news.
“Coach, you’ve got to come with me right now,” he said. “You have to go talk to Shelton’s mama. She’s taking him out of school and signed him up for Job Corps.”
Donlick, not knowing exactly what he was going to say, went to the Benjamin home.
“Coach, I tell you, he’s been in so much trouble that I can’t take it anymore. He’s always getting in fights,” Benjamin’s mother told Donlick.
“I told her that I understood what she was saying and that I was going to make two promises,” says Donlick. “The first one was real easy – ‘ll make him a state champion. But the second one, I want you to listen to, because I’m going to guarantee that I’m going to get him into college and he’s going to succeed.”
Benjamin’s mother, whom Donlick described as “a pretty stern woman who can handle Shelton,” looked at him and stared for a few moments before replying.
“She didn’t say much. She looked at me, and I thought we were sunk. I wasn’t reading any expression. Finally she said, `OK, Coach, I’ll give you a chance.'”
Donlick says Benjamin never got into any trouble again while he was in high school.
Benjamin had wrestled under another coach the year before Donlick came on board, but it wasn’t “goal-oriented wrestling,” he says.
“I was wrestling, but it was just something to do. I was wrestling and playing other sports pretty much just to stay out of the house. I didn’t really have any long- term goals. Orangeburg was rough, and I just wanted to be away from it as much as possible. So I just used sports as a way to get out of the house. He (Donlick) came along and showed me that I could use sports to my advantage. I had been basically raised in the ghetto, a black kid with no idea what was out there. He showed me a lot and put a desire in my heart to do better.
“I owe it all to my coach because I was a troubled youth I could have been a drug dealer. I didn’t want to do that, but that’s the kind of people I hung around. Basically I was a D student at best. Coach came into my life and pretty much turned it around and showed me a better way.”
“It was an environment as bad as you could ever imagine,” reaffirms Donlick. “Drugs, guns, the whole deal. It was a fine line for me to walk as a coach. I’m walking the line between that environment and the new life that we had planned out for him. I get along fine with the rest of his family and everybody else there. In a way they respect Shelton for walking away, and still like him. They don’t look down on him because he chose a different way. I think they admire him.”
In the beginning, however, Benjamin didn’t know just what to think about this man who traveled 140 miles each day to and from his job, spent his own money to buy equipment and other items for his athletes, and even took time out of his busy schedule to deal with their personal issues.
“I wasn’t fighting against it, but I just didn’t know,” says Benjamin, who was kicked out of school once for carrying a gun. “You hear people talking about it, but he actually took time out of his day, every day almost, to guide me. He came to my house and begged my mom to let me wrestle because he didn’t want to see me go down the road that a lot of people in my town were going down – jail, drugs and murder. Most of my influences weren’t the best influences. I never did anything worse than taking a gun to school. Thank God I never did anything that would come back to haunt me. Had he not been an influence, I probably would have.”
Donlick didn’t promise Benjamin the world, but he did guarantee him a better life and a way out if he would follow a few simple guidelines. “One thing he used to always tell me was to look around me, and look at all the kids who were dropping out of school, and they weren’t going to get anywhere and would be running for the rest of their lives,” says Benjamin. “He told me that you can bust your butt for the next two years and totally improve the quality of your life. I took his advice, and continued taking his advice. I’ve followed that advice throughout school. So far nothing he has ever told me has proved false. He’s my best friend in life. There has never been a point since leaving high school that he and I haven’t talked on a regular basis.”
Benjamin’s impressive physique and raw ability on the wrestling mat had made a believer out of Donlick, but he was equally impressed with Benjamin’s performance on the football field and on the track where he ran an amazing 4.29 in the 40.
“Potential wise, Shelton was probably the greatest football player I’ve ever seen in my life,” says Donlick. “You can imagine the physical strength. What many people don’t know, even today, is that Shelton is one of the fastest runners in the world. He won the junior college national championship in the 100. He ran a 10.2.”
What makes those figures even more impressive is that Benjamin didn’t train. “He just kind of walked in off the street,” says Donlick. “He went to the California state championships where you have UCLA, Southern Cal, the whole Olympic program. Of course no one knew who he was. Here’s this big, hulking guy carrying his little gym bag, and he took third with no training. He was awesome. But there were always problems with football coaches. I never understood why it had to be like that.”
Benjamin started out as a running back on the gridiron and was setting the league on fire until he revealed in a conversation with his football coach that wrestling was his sport of choice.
“It was unbelievable how good he was in high school,” recalls Donlick. “I remember one game against Airport where he had something like 460 yards rushing and four touchdowns. He probably had another 100 yards and a touchdown called back in penalties. And then there was a discussion with the head coach that went something like this: `Well, Shelton, which sport do you like best, wrestling or football?’ I told Shelton that he had to taking stupid pills that day, because he thinks about it and tells the coach, `Maybe wrestling.’ He didn’t carry the football much after that.”
“It didn’t have to be that way,” adds Donlick. “He was such a great athlete. With a lot of football coaches, and I hate to make broad, sweeping generalizations, but I’ve seen it so many times. There are egos that get in the way that are unbending.”
Benjamin, who began playing football in the eighth grade alongside future University of South Carolina star Arturo Freeman while future college stars Woody Dantzler, Jackie Robinson and Devron Harper were also coming through the O-W system a few years behind him, spent most of the remainder of his senior season at linebacker but was still offered scholarships from most of the top colleges in the country.
The 1994 All-State selection eventually accepted a full ride at N.C. State. The first day he put on the pads as a Wolfpack football player, however, he suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament that would require surgery.
“He got a pretty raw deal there, because Shelton didn’t want to have knee surgery,” says Donlick. “He told them he wasn’t going to have it operated on. I could understand, because he had just gone through arthroscopic, and the surgeon wasn’t that good and left him in a lot of pain. I told (former N.C. State head football coach) Mike O’Cain and those guys, `Give me a few days to talk to Shelton, and he’ll have the surgery, but it might take a little while.'”
Unfortunately for Donlick and Benjamin, however, somebody jumped the gun. When Benjamin went to enroll, he was informed that he didn’t have a particular course so he couldn’t register even though he had graduated from the junior college.
“Of course we had gone through his courses one by one back in January of that year, and now we’re in the summer,” says Donlick. “Everything had been approved, and they tried to say they didn’t know anything about it. What they were doing was recycling the scholarship, not really giving him a chance.”
Donlick says he eventually came across an interoffice memo signed months earlier that proved Benjamin had been cleared. “I really pushed it, but Shelton didn’t want to take it too far. He just went back to the junior college, and with this so-called bad knee, won the junior college national championship in wrestling, and then won it in track in the 100 on the same bad leg.”
Benjamin attended Lassen Junior College in California where he won the junior college wrestling nationals in the heavyweight division his sophomore year after winning the national championship in track his freshman year. “It was a good experience for me,” says Benjamin. “But it was a real culture shock. It was a tiny logging town up in the mountains, and the biggest store there was a Wal-Mart that had opened up only a couple years before I got there.”[ad#MikeMooneyham-468×15]
Benjamin’s circuitous route to the big time next took him to the University of Minnesota on a full scholarship. The Big 10 school’s wrestling team was in a rebuilding year when Benjamin arrived on campus, but managed to take third place nationally, trailing only perennial power Iowa and Penn State.
Benjamin became a standout at Minnesota, but he still hadn’t shaken the football bug. After using up all his wrestling eligibility, he set out to play football in his fifth year. He had missed some exams that year due to wrestling at the nationals, and as a result there were some incompletes on his transcript. Benjamin figured that he could easily make them up, but before he ever got the chance, an assistant football coach pulled his transcripts and noticed the incompletes. Without conferring with Benjamin, the assistant reported to the head coach and wrongly informed him that Benjamin would be ineligible and that he needed to offer the scholarship to somebody else.
Meanwhile, Benjamin had successfully completed the exams, and when he went to the head coach ready to report for duty, the coach broke the bad news to him.
“Shelton said if he never sees another football, it will be too soon,” says Donlick. “He just had one bad experience after another.”
That incident, however, may have proved to be a blessing in disguise, as Benjamin went on to serve as an assistant wrestling coach at Minnesota on a team that produced NCAA heavyweight champ Lesnar, who had competed at the junior college level the two years Benjamin wrestled at the school.
“Right off the bat when I got to Minnesota, J (Robinson) kind of sat me down and asked me what I wanted to do with my life in general,” recalls Benjamin. “I told him that I was interested in doing pro wrestling. He told me he knew Jerry (Brisco) and that we’d get in touch with him when I was done with my college days.”
“Shelton was always picking people up and piledriving them and slamming them around WWF style, and that’s what he always wanted to do,” says Robinson. “When I first talked to Jerry, they were looking at Brock Lesnar. When you look at Brock, Brock’s pretty imposing, just because he’s so big. I told Jerry he also needed to look at this guy (Shelton). I don’t have a tendency to recommend people I don’t think will make it. Here was a guy who doesn’t drink, doesn’t do drugs … Everybody has Achilles heels, and pretty girls are Shelton’s. We all have our weaknesses, but that’s a great one to have. But he came up here and fit in with the team right away. There’s just no one who doesn’t like him.”
Robinson says he believes that Benjamin would be able to cut effective promos.
“He can almost go into hyperdrive – go from just being this quiet, unassuming guy to doing what he needs to do in that world. He’s a natural. He can talk the talk. A lot of guys can’t, but he can.”
Benjamin and Brisco met for the first time at the 1999 Summer Slam in Minneapolis. Brisco immediately knew that Benjamin would be a good fit in the WWF.
“He (Brisco) was a fun guy – real animated. It was a good first impression. It was a relaxed atmosphere. Brock and I were there talking with him. Brock had another year left. I talked with Jerry, and he told me they’d fly me out to Connecticut for a tryout.”
Benjamin passed the tryout with flying colors.
“It was the weekend before Thanksgiving when I got down there. I worked out, but they really didn’t give me any idea of how it went. Late December they called me and said they wanted to sign me. I signed in January.”
Benjamin was given the option of going to Memphis or Louisville, but choose Louisville because Memphis was a little closer to home
“I didn’t want to have the option of running home,” he says. “I’ve been here over a year.”
Where Benjamin would like to go next is the World Wrestling Federation, but he’s not sure when he might get the call.”
“I really don’t know. I’m just trying to be ready when they do.”
And he’s not about to rest on his laurels.
“I get a lot of praise, but I feel that now that they recognize me, I have to work that much harder.”
For now Benjamin is enjoying teaming with Lesnar in the Ohio Valley promotion. The 6-3, 290-pound Lesnar, the NCAA heavyweight champion in 2000 and Big 10 Conference champ in 1999 and 2000, began training last August. Benjamin served as his assistant coach and “sparring partner” his last year at Minnesota.
“I was one of three guys who could handle him, because Brock’s a monster,” says Benjamin.
“They had some great matches in the room,” jokes Robinson. “There was a lot of pride. Shelton’s a two-time All- American, and Brock’s trying to come in and make a name for himself. Shelton kind of does what he has to do, and competition brings that out in you. It was like, `Who’s the king of the room?’ They were practice matches, but when they did, everybody literally cleared out. You get those two who not only are big, but highly explosive, they’re just going to blow right through you. When they got in some flurries, everybody just backed away.”
Benjamin’s versatility hasn’t gone unnoticed. He’s able to combine his technical skills with a high-flying style rarely used by workers his size.
“I’m a high flyer, just because I can do a lot of acrobatics. Right now I think I could be a technical wrestler, because a lot of the technical stuff they do is amateur stuff that I have already done. I could pretty much do whatever style they wanted, whether it be to go jump around with The Hardys or have a technical match with Benoit or try to brawl with Kane. I’d probably come up on the short end of the stick on that one.”
One of the things the 25-year-old wunderkind enjoys most about his stay at the developmental camp is the opportunity to work with Jim Cornette.
“Corny’s great. I grew up watching the sport, so I grew up hating him because he was always a heel when I saw him. So now it’s just fun to be working with him. There are a lot of guys here who just picked up on pro wrestling, but I grew up watching it. I think that’s to my advantage. A lot of times they’ll be telling stories and certain things about the business, and a lot of guys who are just familiar with the last three or four boom years in professional wrestling, they don’t get it because they’ve only been watching so long.”
Benjamin, though, has been a lifelong wrestling fan.
“I grew up watching it and always wanted to do it. It was a lifelong passion.”
Benjamin’s appreciation for the business naturally makes him a big Ric Flair fan. “The guy you love to hate,” Benjamin laughs. “Coming up I always rooted for the babyface and hated the heel. What I’ve learned over the past year is how the heels made the good guys look great. I’ve just learned to appreciate that. Just to watch Ric Flair work is amazing. If you were a mid-carder, he would be the one you’d want to go through to get to main- event status. He would be the one to elevate you.”
Watching Flair, says Benjamin, is like a clinic in itself.
“I watched a lot of Ric Flair. He is the man, without a doubt. He was the real total package. Some guys you don’t have words to describe, and he’s one of them. I was never a big Hogan fan. I wondered why he was pushed so far.”
Donlick had been ready to lend his own support had things not worked out. He had wrestled in college at New York’s Ithaca College where future pro wrestling star Gorilla Monsoon (Bob Marella) had competed a couple of years earlier.
“Tiny (Marella) would come back every year and put on a show at the college and donate the profits back to the wrestling team. That was his alumni contribution. When Shelton was thinking about doing this, I was about to get on the phone and give him a call. And I found out he had just died.. I couldn’t believe it.”
Donlick says he never really had any doubt that his charge wouldn’t succeed in the wrestling business.
“Shelton is about 240 pounds, between 6-2 and 6-3, and he’s three percent body fat,” says Donlick. “He’s one of the fastest sprinters in the world. He’s got to be lean. And as impressive as he looks, I’m telling you, without exception, this kid is at least three times stronger. He’s unbelievable. All it took was seeing him that one time. He has unbelievable power. And it’s real. He had a match where he had to slam Big Show. That’s quite a feat.”
Benjamin notes that Big Show (fellow South Carolina native Paul Wight) worked hard to lose weight and improve his work skills during his recent stint with Ohio Valley.
“He was here for six months, and we talked about it (being from the same area) all the time. Paul picked me up by the leg one time and held me over his head, and I felt like a 5-year-old kid with a grown man. I never experienced that type of strength before.
“Paul worked very hard to lose a lot of weight. When Paul first got here, we’d run the ropes for 30 minutes twice. Paul might get through 20 seconds of the first time before he blew up. By the time he left he was hitting them for the whole time. I guess if you saw the transformation you’d have a better appreciation for it. Paul weighed every week. He lost about 85 pounds while he was here.”
Benjamin is also high on Olympic weightlifter-turned-wrestler Mark Henry.
“Mark’s great. He’s a totally different person. He’s leaner and more vicious as far as his in-ring persona. He’s doing real well for himself. If anyone deserves to move up, Mark does. I’ve seen how people give him bad press and say he’s been demoted, but I don’t think Mark even pays attention, because he came in with a good attitude, he doesn’t complain and he’s happy to be at work.”
Donlick, who still makes the long trip to Orangeburg each day, points to Benjamin as an example of how one can succeed in spite of adversity. And he still thinks the best part of his job is helping kids who otherwise might not get the chance.
“With so many guys like Shelton, they just need a hand up. And if somebody can be there, whether it’s me or someone else, quite often that’s all it takes. I’ve got dozens and dozens of kids just like him. Not as successful, but in their own right, they will succeed. I try to be there for the kids. We stay in touch. He’s like my own son. It’s great, because he’s never forgotten where he came from. The last talk we had we were talking about success and what it does to people. Shelton said, `You know, Coach, I see it all the time. These guys make it to the top, and they’re doing drugs and alcohol and women are leading them astray. But Coach, you don’t have to worry about me.’ Of course I knew he would never touch alcohol or drugs. Shelton’s always been that like. He said, `Success won’t go to my head. I know where I come from, and I know where I’m going. Nothing’s going to stand in my way.'”
Donlick said a recent incident speaks volumes about Shelton Benjamin’s character.
“We were talking about the kind of name that Shelton was going to have. Somebody suggested a name that had something to do with guns. Shelton said he couldn’t do that because it would portray the wrong kind of image to the kids. He didn’t want kids thinking that guns and violence are OK. What a great kid. Who would think about something like that when people are waving the kind of money they wave in front of you? We’ve had those talks and we continue to have them. I’m always impressed by how level-headed Shelton is. If there’s an All-American kid, this kid is it. He really is.”
His former coach at the University of Minnesota, J Robinson, wholeheartedly agrees.
“He’s a great kid. You don’t run into too many kids like Shelton. He called right after we won the NCAAs to congratulate us and make sure we told the boys. He remembers his roots. I think he’s the kind of person who when he makes it big, he will give something back to wrestling. He’ll help people. I know he wouldn’t hesitate. There were some situations when I asked Shelton for some help and some other people for some help, and of the five I asked, Shelton was the only one who helped me. And that really stuck in my mind.”
Benjamin’s mother still lives in Orangeburg, his father in St. Matthews.
“My mom’s pretty happy,” he says. “She was never crazy about pro wrestling because I was a rough kid, and she blamed pro wrestling for it. But I think she’s happy because she knows that’s what I want to do. I don’t think my dad really understands what I’m doing. There’s not really much I can say about him. He knows I’m doing good for myself and he’s happy about that, but he never followed pro wrestling or anything like that.”
Benjamin is quick to point out that he can never do enough to repay Ron Donlick for the help and guidance he’s given him over the past 10 years. “I credit him for all of my success.”
“Shelton really did it himself,” says Donlick. “I just gave him the opportunity. I did the easy part. Shelton’s one in a million.”